By Meredith Hughes
Now that you are doubled-vacced, and masks are no longer strictly mandated outdoors and in many venues, maybe you are ready for your first day trek in New Mexico —that is, if you are not yet set to board a plane for Newark in order to visit family, or heading to Belize to scuba.
A gem about an hour and a half drive from Corrales is the 148 acres of ranch land and orchard on the east bank of the Rio Grande known as Los Luceros Historic Site, in Alcalde, a relatively newly dubbed New Mexico Historic Site, signed and sealed on March 28, 2019.
Just north of Española, the tranquil site is the final parcel of what was once a 50,000-acre Spanish land grant named for and controlled, more or less, by Sebastián Martín, born in the New Mexico territory in 1670. The name Los Luceros, supposedly named after one longtime family on the property, also can mean “morning stars.”
The land that the Tewa native people had occupied for centuries changed greatly once Juan de Oñate arrived there in 1598. Their descendants now call Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo home, Oñate intended to create the capital of New Mexico near the Rio Grande, made a stab at two different locations, failed, ultimately became known as overly cruel even by his peers, and was sent back to Spain. The visitor center dedicated to Oñate in Alcalde had a statue of him perched on a horse out front. In 1997, the statute had its foot removed to commemorate and protest the colonizer’s notorious severing of feet from those natives who opposed him. Then the center was renamed the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Center, and finally the entire statue was removed in June 2020.
And yet… Oñate brought settlers, horses, pigs, wheat, mules, sheep and the grapes that established the New Mexico wine industry, as well as fig, peach and apricot trees, and more. Such as alfalfa, a Middle Eastern plant known as al-fiṣfiṣs, which the Arabs brought to Spain. The grain that became known as alfalfa was the preferred fodder for Spanish horses in the Americas. And the site manager for Los Luceros, Ethan Ortega, says that alfalfa, still a major crop in New Mexico, was first grown early on in the Southwest on that land.
Apples from 1,200 trees comprise the other major Los Luceros crop, and the revitalization of its historic orchards first planted by Martín is ongoing. The property passed through many hands after Martín, who incidentally gave back land to the Okhay Owingeh people in exchange for their help building the acequia madre. This mother ditch diverts water from the Rio Grande, about three miles upstream, and returns it to the river three miles south. Lateral ditches still water the Los Luceros fields today.
Relatives of the founding Spanish family worked the land from the late 1700s on, and in 1902 the Lucero family built a Victorian-style mail-order house on the property, which still stands. It’s Victorian in all ways if you overlook the adobe.
Eventually, a privileged, wealthy Anglo woman from Boston, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, purchased much of Los Luceros in 1923. She rescued and rehabbed the decaying casa grande, mostly now known as The Hacienda, and lived there on and off for about 35 years. Among her invited guests were Georgia O’Keeffe, Carl Jung, Willa Cather, Thornton Wilder and many others.
Wheelwright went on to work for years documenting and preserving Navajo traditions, which began when she was introduced to Hastiin Klah, a nadleehi person (a male with feminine characteristics), and a Diné weaver and medicine man. The now-named Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, was established in Santa Fe in 1937. Much of its Navajo collection was repatriated to the Navajo Nation in 1977.
Wheelwright’s cousin Frank Cabot, founder of the non-profit Garden Conservancy, turned her former horse stables and corral into a walled garden in 2004, working with Española orchardist, flower farm and vineyard owner Jan Hale Barbo. Plantings of crabapple, quince and mulberry, as well as butterfly bushes, climbing roses, yarrow and artemisia remain. Revival of this intimate garden is a top priority this spring.
Just now created is a demonstration heritage garden in the West Garden area.
The garden crew planted a Three Sisters Garden consisting of White Nambe Corn, New Mexico Bolitas (beans), and San Juan Pueblo Squash. The corn provides a stalk for the beans to grow on, the beans provide stability to the corn and help fix the nitrogen in the soil, and the squash provides ground cover and shade which helps with soil moisture and weed prevention.
As stated on its Facebook page, “We also planted Corrales azafran which the Spanish used as a saffron substitute when they arrived in New Mexico, Chimayo heirloom melon, and New Mexico amaranth which has been grown in the Southwest for hundreds of years. These seeds were all part of a grant from Native Seeds/SEARCH.” Watermelon, mint, sage, chives and radish are also planted in this so-called “waffle” garden, a method used by many indigenous communities in the dry Southwest.
The mulch used was created on site from pruned and removed trees from the bosque and orchard. Just a year after Los Luceros was made a N.M. Historic Site, COVID-19 invaded, and the hiring and restoration work was halted. As were visitors. Still, Ortega and his tiny crew have persisted, dusting closed up rooms, cutting out dead wood and improving the bosque trails, preparing online offerings, and gearing up for visitors.
Ortega reports that “we received a National Park Service grant for a $1.1 million preservation project to completely restore The Storehouse (the building with the two colorful carved doors) as well as restore the plaster and balcony of The Hacienda. But it likely will be about two years before The Storehouse is accessible to the public.”
Ortega is an award-winning archaeologist/anthropologist who trained at Eastern New Mexico University, and earned a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of New Mexico. Carlyn Stewart, an instructional coordinator and archaeologist, handles curriculum development, community outreach programs, volunteer coordination and interpretive planning. Interpretive Ranger Rebecca Ward is the site’s foodie and food historian, who handles visitors, exhibits and collections.
This young, energetic, tech-savvy team intends to involve local residents more in Los Luceros, possibly making space available for community gardens, and a growers’ market to aid those affected by food insecurity. The site’s mission in part is to “preserve the agricultural use of the property, specifically the apple orchard and pasture within the view shed of The Hacienda,” as well as to “provide for the protection of the environmental elements on the property, specifically the irrigated lands, the bosque, and the Rio Grande.”
Meanwhile, enjoy a visit to the quiet beauty of Los Luceros, open Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., punctuated only by occasional expressions of content by its animal population. (Your leashed dog is welcome.) After a long period of pandemic shutdown, the upstairs of the main hacienda is open, as is the Victorian Cottage and the chapel. The ancient acequia is running, too, and educational programs are underway.
Take a virtual tour of the Acequia Madre by visiting http://nmhistoricsites.org/los-luceros Plan a visit to Los Luceros by viewing http://nmhistoricsites.org/los-lucer os/plan. You also can stay up to date via the Los Luceros Historic Site YouTube channel.